The US presidential race is guaranteed to prove a distraction at the Morocco COP22 gathering, where action is on the agenda
November 5, 2016 — The Australian government takes a delegation to the United Nations climate change talks in Morocco starting Monday – two weeks that are sure to be dominated by, well, who knows?
Because, during the first week, the United States will go to the polls to pick a new president – an event that will act like a giant weapon of mass distraction in Marrakech.
The Republican candidate, Donald Trump, has pledged to pull the US out of the UN process on climate change and cancel the global deal agreed at the last talks in Paris.
Like other high-profile Republicans, Trump is not even convinced that humans cause climate change in the first place. Let’s just say he’s wrong.
But whether a Trump administration could follow through with the threat to “cancel” the agreement is questionable.
Todd Stern, who was the lead negotiator for the US delegation in Paris, has written that Trump has no power to cancel the deal because more than 190 other countries signed it. A withdrawal from Paris, Stern has written, would attract “almost universal condemnation” from other nations.
China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US, launched a sort of pre-emptive strike this week with public comments criticising Trump’s climate stance.
But aside from the distraction of US politics, what else for Marrakech – a meeting known as COP22 (so called, if you must ask, because this is the 22nd meeting of the conference of the parties to the UN framework convention on climate change)? And what about Australia’s position?
Since the Paris agreement was gavelled last December, the process to ratify the deal has been ongoing.
This process, known as “entry into force”, required at least 55 “parties” representing about 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions to ratify the agreement.
This threshold was met on 5 October and the deal will enter into force right about … now!
This rapid entry into force (the Kyoto protocol took almost eight years) is another reason why, from the outside at least, the focus of the Marrakech talks feels unusually fluid.
But the first meeting under the new Paris agreement (known as CMA1 – yeah, I know) will be looking to tie down some of the rules about transparency – that is, how and what each party needs to disclose to the convention.
Australia has still not ratified the Paris agreement but there are reports this could happen before the talks close on 18 November.
Before the Paris talks, countries around the world submitted their plans to cut emissions – these were known as intended nationally determined contributions (you gotta love the UN’s gift for language).
They’re now just NDCs (because they were all accepted as part of the Paris agreement).
Australia pledged that by 2030, it would cut emissions between 26% and 28% below where they were in 2005.
While the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade stands by the target as being ambitious and fair, there are many critics who say it’s anything but.
On this, one diary point in Morocco will be the middle Saturday, when developed countries get to publicly question each other about their plans and ambitions.
Close watchers of the UN climate processes are characterising the Marrakech talks as the “action and implementation COP” because it’s seen as the chance to start acting on the promises made in Paris.
A big push from campaign groups will be to pressure the talks to get on with a fair and just transition away from a world mostly powered by fossil fuels (the decision by the French company Engie to close Australia’s dirtiest coal power station, Hazelwood, is such an example of this transition in action, and the need to plan for it).
Perhaps the most important element of the talks, though, will be about a part of the Paris deal known as the ambition – or ratchet – mechanism.
When scientists have analysed all the targets that countries have put on the table, they have found they are not even close to achieving the agreed aim of keeping global warming “well below 2°C”. Without further ambition, we could see warming of 3°C or more.
The ratchet mechanism is designed to push countries to become more ambitious over time, setting in place stocktakes, reviews and deadlines for new targets. How this will all work in practice will be a key part of COP22.
Australia remains an influential country in the talks, owing in part to its position as chair of the umbrella group of countries – one of many negotiating groups.
As yet there has been no formal announcement from the Australian government on who will attend, but there is an expectation among some that the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, will be there for the “high-level segment” that starts in week two.
The Australian delegation will also have a new diplomat in charge. Replacing Peter Woolcott as climate change ambassador is Peter Suckling, who took over the role in February after serving as Australia’s high commissioner in India.
During his time in New Delhi Suckling made several statements supporting the controversial Carmichael mega-coalmine project in Queensland, being proposed by Indian company Adani.
“This project will drive economic growth and create more than 6,000 jobs in Australia,” he said in 2014. “It will also boost India’s development by providing electricity to 100 million Indians.”
In one report in the Economic Times, Suckling was quoted as saying the Australian government was trying to tighten legal rules around who could and could not challenge coalmines through the courts (a theme that has re-emerged in recent weeks).
“We are actively thinking of possible ways to limit the scope of litigation to only those with a real standing in a project,” he was quoted as saying.
Language like this tends not to go down well with the army of NGOs, campaigners and civil society groups who attend the climate talks and have given Australia more then a fair share of “fossil” awards over the years.
The perception among many has been that Australia has sought to defend the coal industry too many times at UN meetings.
Will Australia stake its reputation on coal again?